As far as trends go, Rolex are much more likely to lead than to follow. Generally, the Swiss watchmaking colossus sets the pace and the rest of the horology world tries to keep up.
Perhaps the only area in which they have ever been late to the game is for the relatively recent drift into larger watches.
The fashion for oversize pieces has been gathering momentum for a while now, with some crediting the mainstream arrival of Panerai’s dive models, and their celebrity endorsement by Sly Stallone, for the movement.
Since the turn of the new millennium, proportions have been gradually creeping up across the board, and Rolex eventually joined in with once unthinkably large new creations such as the Sky-Dweller and Yacht-Master II. Even more surprisingly, all time classics such as the Datejust and Day-Date, two emblematic watches that have represented the brand for over half a century, have also been sent away to bulk up. Now available in 41mm and 40mm editions respectively, alongside the long-accepted standard 36mm, they are essentially vintage watches for the 21stcentury.
However, while the Rolex lineup is certainly expanding in dimensions as a whole, there are some huge names in the catalog that have resisted the move.
Their most famous sports watches, usually the obvious choice for adding a millimeter or two, have stuck rigidly to their 40mm cases and don’t seem about to change anytime soon.
Below, we’ll take a look at some of Rolex’s best offerings in the 40mm category.
The Rolex Submariner
If we’re going to talk about Rolex sports watches, there can only ever be one place to start. The Submariner has been part of the collective consciousness for more than 60 years now; a design that has been emulated, copied and faked in numbers too huge to count.
Originally launched as a 36mm piece, it was upgraded to 40mm in 1959 with the ref. 5512 and has kept the same measurements ever since.
While there have been some people in recent years who have vocalized the idea of a larger Sub, Rolex has never succumbed and instead placated those fans by making the bigger brother, the Sea-Dweller, bigger still with the latest 43mm version.
The Submariner is now the smallest of the brand’s dive trio. The Deepsea tops them all with a 44mm case, and their respective sizes tell us a lot about each watch’s particular role in the pecking order.
Obviously, as the different demands put on the individual watches grows as you go through the range, so do their cases. The Sea-Dweller and the Deepsea were created to withstand the insane pressures professional saturation divers have to deal with. With the Sub being designed for the recreational diver and needing to safeguard its waterproofness to ‘only’ 1,000ft, there has never been a need for it to get any bigger.
However, extremely capable though it may be, no one at Rolex is under any illusions over how many of its Submariner customers actually get their watches wet.
The Sub is now very much a status symbol, and it can be as low-key or as flamboyant as needs be. The original steel piece, with its black dial and iconic bezel, remains an understated masterpiece with enough versatility to be accepted anywhere. It’s also tough enough to wear as a faithful daily beater; any knocks or scrapes it picks up along the way only seem to add more character.
But where its two stable mates are only, and will ever only, be made in the strongest steel available, the Sub has a closet full of fancy suits. During its protracted run, it has emerged in full yellow gold finery, in white gold with rich blue toppings and in a range of two-tone models. You’ll find a pair of bright green examples, and a host of diamond-bedecked baubles that are far removed from the watch’s key mission statement yet retain an enthusiastic audience.
It may not have been the first. It may no longer be the most proficient. But the Rolex Submariner will always be the world’s favorite dive watch.
The Rolex Explorer II
While its latest iteration may have followed the prevailing tide and added a couple of mil on, for the first four decades of its life, the Explorer II stuck stubbornly to its original 40mm dimensions.
The eternally ignored, ultra-sturdy tool watch is enjoying perhaps its biggest moment in the sun right now. Seeing a Submariner or a GMT-Master out in the wild is not that uncommon, but spotting an Explorer II on a passing wrist is that much more of a rare event it stands the wearer apart as something of a non-conforming individual.
A watch always afflicted by an image problem, which in itself makes it almost unique in the Rolex lineup, the Explorer II was aimed at those adventurers who spent their lives dealing with either too much, or not enough, sunlight. The original reference from 1971, the ref. 1655, was touted as the ideal companion for spelunkers—cave explorers in other words. The additional bright orange ‘Freccione’ hour hand and the lume plots every two and a half minutes made it especially legible in the dark, while the engraved 24-hour bezel meant it was easy for people who hadn’t seen the outside world for a while to tell whether it was night or day up on the surface.
As useful as these qualities are, the fact remains that a life spent wandering about underground was never going to out-sexy that of a commercial airline pilot or Scuba diver, and so the Explorer II was often left on the shelf while the Subs and GMTs found appreciative homes.
However, with the cyclical nature of things, the simple straightforwardness of the Explorer’s all steel construction and shunning of the latest standard fancies, such as Cerachrom bezels, has given it a cult following—one that is growing every day.
Vintage fans old and young are identifying with the Explorer II and its adherence to the original Rolex spirit. Before they became the number one aspirational brand in the world, they made their name by building the sort of watches that were not just functional, but that stayed functional anywhere, doing anything. With the rest of the sports range emerging in evermore affluent versions that drag them away from their origins, the Explorer’s modesty and understated capabilities are refreshing, ironically because they have never changed.
Its appeal may not be as wide ranging, but it gives the watch a built-in exclusivity because of it.
One for the purists, it is the model for those who want their Rolex to outlive them and be handed down to future generations.
The Rolex Daytona
Like the Submariner, the Cosmograph Daytona started life in a smaller shell. Its 37mm size lasted throughout the whole of the wilderness years—the quarter of a century when the current hottest ticket in horology couldn’t even be given away.
In 1988 the watch and its desirability were transformed when it received its first self-winding caliber and housed it in a new 40mm case. The arrival of the Zenith movement signaled the start of the Daytona’s ascent to watch collecting’s top table, which is where you’ll still find it today.
However, not all 40mm pieces are created equal. There are a number of ways manufacturers can make their creations appear bigger or smaller than the numbers would suggest.
Of Rolex’s current crop of professional watches, some, such as the latest Sub and GMT-Master, have adopted what is known as the Maxi case, with thicker, more muscular-looking lugs and a bigger crown. Finished with fatter indexes and hands (called Maxi dials), on the wrist they have significantly more presence than their previous, non-Maxi cased predecessors, despite sharing the same dimensions on paper.
The Daytona on the other hand, along with the Yacht-Master and, strangely, the Sea-Dweller, have retained their svelte, graceful lines—and it gives them a more reserved look, one that doesn’t draw attention to itself in the way you would imagine.
It is a particularly welcome feature on the Daytona. It’s a busy watch to look at in the first place, with its trio of sub dials, its mass of bezel engraving and the two pushers flanking the winding crown. Enlarging various elements could be a recipe for an unbalanced, overly cumbersome design; much like with the short lived Datejust II and Day-Date II. From its 1963 debut, the Cosmograph has always been a lean, stripped down performer, carrying no excess weight—just as a racer should be.
Beyond its appearance though, there is a reason the Daytona has built the reputation it enjoys today. It has never lost sight of its original purpose and remains one of the most adept mechanical chronos ever made. Whether from the Zenith era, the 1988 to 2000 period where it was driven by the heavily modified El Primero engine, or the all in-house Rolex Cal. 4130 that has powered it ever since, it has always been the consummate professional.
Of the sports range, it is the model with by far the greatest variety. You’ll find Daytonas in every flavor of gold as well as ruinously expensive platinum versions. As is the way with Rolex, it is the least expensive steel editions that are the most sought after, and therefore the most difficult to buy brand new.
On the vintage and pre-owned market, prices for a genuine slice of watchmaking history start at the surprisingly attainable and rise to…well, how much do you want to spend?
Delve back into the watch’s archives and you will encounter models so rare they break world records at auction.
The Daytona, once the unloved ugly duckling, is now the chronograph by which all others are judged. As an emblematic sports watch, it is in a league of its own.
The 40mm watch is now considered a standard, just as the 36mm models were for several generations. For many, it is the perfect size—just enough of an attention grabber to make a statement, but not so much you can be mistaken for wearing a sundial on your arm.
Rolex’s back catalog is filled with a host of mouthwatering creations that measure up. Take a look through our online store to track down your own personal favorite.